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100 Greatest Players

Steve Yzerman: 100 Greatest NHL Players

'Ultimate captain' helped lead Red Wings to three Stanley Cup titles

by Bob Duff / Special to

In 2010, during his first year as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steve Yzerman saw how large his legend continues to resonate with Canadian hockey fans.

Yzerman had taken his two daughters to the St. Pete Times Forum to see Justin Bieber in concert, but Bieber only had eyes for Stevie Y, pointing out to the crowd how honored he was to be in Yzerman's presence.


Video: Steve Yzerman was Detroit's captain for 19 seasons


"That was one of the few times I've been recognized in Florida," said Yzerman, downplaying the moment.

This was typical Yzerman. About the only thing he likes less than being famous is being reminded he is famous.

"It's pretty much my nature," Yzerman said of his desire to stay away from the limelight. "I enjoy living my own life. I'm not a movie star. I'm not a rock 'n' roll singer. I was just a hockey player.


Games: 1,514 | Goals: 692 | Assists: 1,063 | Points: 1,755


"I want to be part of the community but not necessarily a figurehead."

Whether he likes it or not, Yzerman can figure on staying in the limelight for many years to come. Following a Hall of Fame career as a center with the Detroit Red Wings, Yzerman was executive director for Canada's Olympic team, which won gold medals in 2010 and 2014, and he's built the Lightning into a Stanley Cup contender.

Yzerman, known simply as "The Captain" in Detroit, led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1998.

The Stanley Cup has always been Yzerman's No. 1 priority. He played 22 seasons but didn't win the championship until his 14th season.

"It's the only award that matters," he said. "By far the most rewarding thing is going through four rounds of the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup."

Yzerman did it all during an NHL career spent entirely with the Red Wings from 1983-2006. He ranks seventh in NHL scoring with 1,755 points (692 goals, 1,063 assists).

"I don't know whether I was ever really a goal-scorer or a playmaker," said Yzerman, one of eight players in League history to top 600 goals and 1,000 assists.

Yzerman was an NHL First All-Star Team selection in 2000 and won the Lester B. Pearson Award in 1989 as the NHL's Most Outstanding Player, as selected by the NHLPA, after setting Red Wings single-season scoring records of 65 goals, 90 assists and 155 points.

"He was my idol growing up [in Quebec]," former Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier said. "I wore his jersey and went and watched him play against Montreal."

Yzerman was selected to 10 NHL All-Star Games and won the Selke Trophy in 2000 and the Bill Masterton Trophy in 2003.

"Look at the great players I played with," Yzerman said. "All of the accolades that came my way were made possible by those great players."

As much as his many teammates marvelled at Yzerman's impressive skill set, it was the way he led during his 19 seasons as Detroit captain that left many of them speechless.

Former Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, who was captain of the Chicago Blackhawks from 1995-99, described Yzerman as "the ultimate captain."

"No one competes more than him," Chelios said. "He's been like that ever since I've known him."

Yzerman admits he can't turn it off when he goes home.

Card games. Monopoly. Scrabble. It doesn't matter. In Yzerman's mind, only one person can be No. 1.

"I have to win at everything," he said. "It's cost me some friends."

Yzerman wasn't the type of captain that gave fire-and-brimstone speeches. He led by quiet example.

"Being captain, it's a recognition of leadership," Hall of Fame left wing and former Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay said. "A quality [is] that you have to hold your team together, make them perform as a unit.

"I think Steve Yzerman would be the best illustration. Steve Yzerman didn't kick any butt. He used to show guys how to do it. I think this is where lots of mistakes are made by people who think a guy gets in the dressing room and he makes a big show. That's not true leadership. You do it by leading by example."

You do it the way Yzerman did.

"He's the best leader I've ever seen," former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille said.

An engaging conversationalist, Yzerman can speak on virtually any topic with some sense of authority.

Except himself.

"When I think of Steve, I think of competitiveness and intensity," said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, Yzerman's teammate during his early Detroit days and later his boss as Detroit's assistant GM. "The will to win. He was going to win no matter what."

Nill also explained why Yzerman sought no part of the praise that constantly came his way.

"He never wanted to stand out from the other players," Nill said. "He just wanted to be one of the guys."

It's amazing to think the Red Wings weren't certain they'd taken the right guy when they selected Yzerman with the No. 4 pick in the 1983 NHL Draft.

The Red Wings were a club floundering amidst a culture of losing. They'd won one playoff series since 1966 when Yzerman arrived, hardly looking the part of a hero.

"Jim Pengelly was our trainer and he'd come from a soccer background," said Nick Polano, Red Wings coach from 1982-85. "He was strong on physical training and physical presence, but he really didn't understand hockey players.

"After he'd done all the workouts he came into my office with the list and gave me the reports. He liked all the strong guys, and he said, 'You've got one really skinny guy down there, you'll have to send him home. He can't even lift his own weight.' So I said, 'What's his name?' and he said, 'Steve Why-zerman.' And I said, 'No, that's Yzerman, and if he can't play I'm in big trouble as the coach.' "

Polano decided to set the tempo by opening training camp with a scrimmage. Early in the game, Yzerman corralled the puck, beat veteran defenseman John Barrett at the blue line and sent a shot top-shelf past goalie Greg Stefan.

"I could see right from the first day that he was going to be a very special player," Polano said. "And when Steve made that big move and scored that goal with everybody watching, I went down to the bench and I said to Pengelly, 'That's that Why-zerman guy.'

"All the players were just laughing."

Yzerman set a Detroit rookie record with 39 goals and 87 points in 1983-84 and led the Red Wings in scoring 11 times, but when you ask any of his teammates for their favorite Yzerman memory, they immediately cite the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Skating on a right knee in dire need of repair -- Yzerman would undergo a osteotomy (a realignment procedure) in the summer of 2002 -- he acknowledged the pain, but refused to be overwhelmed by it. Instead, Yzerman persevered. He never missed a shift, let alone a game, leading the Red Wings in postseason scoring with 23 points.

"He was a true leader for us to follow," said Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who succeeded Yzerman as captain in 2006. "He showed a tremendous commitment in those playoffs, playing through injury, through pain."

Yzerman, who also won an Olympic gold medal with Canada that season, called it his most enjoyable season in the NHL.

He retired four years later.

"The determining factor for me was that I wasn't going to be able to do the things I felt were necessary to play a role on the team," he said.

It was his last selfless gesture as a player, the sort of act from which his legend was woven.

"He just does the right thing time in and time out, even when the right thing is very hard to do," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, Yzerman's last NHL coach. "Most of us go for the path of least resistance. That's not Steve Yzerman."

Yzerman moved into the Red Wings front office, putting the same determination into learning that side of the game.

"He was a warrior," Detroit GM Ken Holland said. "He was a leader. He was a captain. He was the face of a franchise.

"He stepped up and was the face when we won the Stanley Cup and also when we lost in the first round. He was the face when we had tragedies in the organization.

"The reason people fell in love with Stevie is because of his class. The person you see on the ice is the person you see off the ice. A caring, hardworking person with a great passion for the game and for his family and friends."

The Red Wings moved quickly to honor Yzerman, retiring his No. 19 during the 2006-07 season. The road leading to Joe Louis Arena was renamed Yzerman Drive.

"That's kind of neat, but I kind of wish my name was Smith or Jones, because in 20 years no one's going to remember how to pronounce it," Yzerman joked. "It took me 20 years to get everyone around here to pronounce it right."

The humble, self-deprecating reaction was Yzerman at his best.

As Yzerman watched his number join those of Terry Sawchuk (1), Lindsay (7), Gordie Howe (9), Alex Delvecchio (10) and Sid Abel (12), he wondered aloud what all the fuss was about.

"It's a tremendous honor for me, but I don't think of myself as being among them," Yzerman said. "Those are the players that built the League. I just went out and played."

Better than almost anyone.


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